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The High Cost of Higher Education Explained in One Simple Graphic

A student rides a bicycle past the bell tower on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. Photographer: Daniel Acker
A student rides a bicycle past the bell tower on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. (Daniel Acker, Getty Images)

For years, politicians and pundits have held forth about the high cost of higher education. Whether the issue du jour is rising tuition prices, falling returns on our educational investment, or the ballooning student debt bubble, the message has generally been the same: College is only getting harder to afford, even as it becomes more necessary.

Recently, CourseSmart, an e-textbook provider, created an infographic that lays out in simple terms the details of the college tuition explosion -- and they're truly frightening. Over the last 30 years, tuition has increased 1,120 percent; by comparison, even the "skyrocketing" cost of health care only rose 600 percent, and housing costs have gone up a paltry 375 percent.
Not surprisingly, college loan debt has grown explosively too, outstripping car loans and credit cards as the largest sources of personal debt. Given the much-trumpeted 2011 announcement that Americans owed more than $1 trillion in student loans, this shouldn't be all that surprising. Nor, for that matter, should it be shocking that almost one in five families is currently paying off student loans.

Yet, somehow, it is.

There are a lot of ideas being floated to get these problems under control: value report cards for universities; pay-it-forward tuition plans; a renewed focus on non-collegiate higher education. For now, however, tuitions continue to rise and students continue to take on back-breaking debt to cover the bills, as the graphic below explains.

High cost of higher eucation

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Where does all that extra money go - as far as the text books, that's a scam too!

May 23 2013 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

why did the astronautics not walk on the sun they could have went at night so it would not have been as hot

May 14 2013 at 10:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Martin

It seems to me that the higher cost of higher education today may be related to govt investment in it. The more money the feds put out there the more people and institutions gobble it up. The trough has too much money in it.

March 18 2013 at 7:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Also, the reason that a masters will be required for employment soon is that to many people are getting degrees. I was at a job fair a couple days ago and every position was for bachelors and up. Most of these positions were sales positions. If it was even ten years ago none of the open positions would have required a degree. When everybody has a degree it devalues it.

March 17 2013 at 9:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's called supply and demand. The demand has risen dramatically because it is very easy to get student loans. Also the down economy sends more people back to school. And finally, costs have risen because people don't shop around very much. These students think that because a school costs so much that it must be good. In reality more than 50 percent of students that graduate college are not better off with the degree. They are stuck with debt and making no more money than they would have with just a high school degree.

March 17 2013 at 9:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is simple, Republicans continue to cut funding for education and tuition, so the difference must be made up somewhere and that is higher fees to students. We decry importing technically skilled foreign workers on HIB visas who are educated at their government's expense all the while making it more difficult for Americans to get the same degrees in the US. This is the Republican legacy of their form of fiscal conservatism; short term solutions with long term negative consequences.

March 16 2013 at 9:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Alan's comment
John Martin

Cut the funding to college and the waste would diminish also. It's just like in the medical business. I know of a hospital that did an recent add-on that included a rock garden and a waterfall. What do these aesthetic improvements have to do with the medical business? My dad taught chemistry at a mid-size university and retired in the early 80"s They paid peanuts then. My first trimester at that college had a tuition bill of under $300 and books for about $75. That was too frugal, but it is a well-respected engineering undergraduate institution. Now they have fairly new dorms that none of the kids will stay in. Could we find a happy medium?

March 18 2013 at 7:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
The Martins

It's so easy even a conservative can get it: Conservative banking, corporations, congressmen, and college concerns conspire to create a climate wherein successive generations of kids need degrees to compete, this drives up the cost of schools and gosh, as long as kids can have access to loans, this drives the cost through the roof, enriching banksters and colleges at the same time.

March 16 2013 at 3:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

same problem as david - i addressed the problem honestly and got "we're sorry, your comment cannot be added ---------- couldn't force myself to write something dishonest (ie the liberal point of view)

March 16 2013 at 12:36 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

choose a loan payment plan that works? are they NUTS?!?!?!? the democrat/liberal/racist/progressive party has every intention of forgiving these debts ---- buying both slaves and votes is what they do

March 16 2013 at 12:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David L McNeil

We're sorry, your comment cannot be added due to technical difficulties. Try coming up with something more liberal and then submit again.

March 16 2013 at 1:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply